The Art of the Graduation Speech

Willferrel
Every year around this time, a few of our Collegewise kids ask us to look over the graduation speeches they’ve written so we can “give them feedback.” And every year, our most important feedback is that they not write the standard high school graduation speech. I know that standard speech well. In fact, every kid in America who writes a high school graduation speech seems to say the same three things.

1. “We’ve come so far in just four years.”

2. “We’ve endured good times and bad, but we’ve done so together.”

3. “Now we’re going off into our futures, but we’re well prepared thanks to our wonderful high school.”

There’s nothing wrong with those messages. In fact, those are entirely appropriate thoughts to share. But the rules we teach for great college essays all apply here.  Don’t say what everybody else says exactly how they say it.  Be honest.  Be specific.  Be forceful.  Say something meaningful.  Don’t resort to quotes or clichés.

We’re not in the speechwriting business, but in the interest of high school graduation guests everywhere, here are my five unsolicited tips for high school speechwriting hopefuls.

1. Be specific

Details make writing interesting. And the same can be said of details in speeches. There’s nothing original or interesting in saying,

“Our freshman year, we were somewhat unsure of ourselves, lost in such a large school that at first glance seemed so impersonal, apprehensive about what our future held for us."

But details make it personal and relatable.

“It’s amazing how much we’ve all changed in the last four years. On my first day here at school, I could barely reach my locker. I estimated that most of the senior football players had to have been at least 28 years old. And sadly, I got lost trying to find Freshman English and had to ask for directions. Twice. Today, I’m proud to report that I can reach my locker, the football players don’t look older than I do, and I can find any class on this campus, from drama to physics without having to ask for directions. How much different will we all be two years, or four years, or ten years from now?”

2. Put the quote book away.

Forget the famous quotes. You are the graduation speaker. People want to know what you have to say, not what Nitzche or the President or King Ferdinand has to say. 

3. Thank someone. And ask others to do the same.

It’s always good to recognize parents, teachers and your friends. But I think a very nice thing to do is to publicly thank a specific person, one person who helped you, who made a difference, or believed in you. It could be a coach, a counselor, a teacher, your dad or whoever. Thank them in front of everybody. And then encourage everyone else to find and thank the person who helped them, and to do so before they leave graduation.

Who you have to thank is not important to the audience. What’s important is that you’ll ask them to think about who they have to thank. The speech shouldn’t just be about you. Your personal message should be one to which other people can relate. If it inspires other people, you’ll be a speaker to remember.

4. Don’t say anything you’ll regret in thirty years.

Most kids who are selected to be graduation speakers are the type of kids who have always set a good example. But every year, they’ll be a few kids who want to take controversial stand, or call out a teacher or administrator, or make an inappropriate joke. Don’t be that kid. You want inspiration? Write a speech that, thirty years from now, you can show to your own son or daughter who’s writing a graduation speech and say, “That’s how it’s done.” 

5. Save your most important message for the end.

You are the student who will have the collective attention of your entire senior class. So put down the speech and ask yourself, what is the one thought, the one thing you would most like to say to every single member of the graduating class? If they remembered nothing else, what’s the most important thing you want to say to them?  That you hope they stay safe during graduation night so they can start their futures tomorrow? That they find success and happiness?  Whatever the answer is, make sure you include it in the speech, and make sure you close with it.

If you’ve got a friend who’s hoping to be a grad night speaker, feel free to forward this along. I hope it helps.